Pamela Painter is the author of three story collections: Getting to Know the Weather, The Long and Short of I, and Wouldn’t You Like to Know. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Five Points, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, among others. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter lives in Boston and teaches in the Emerson College MFA Program.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lauren Fosgett. Of the process, she said, “Interviewing Pamela Painter was a delight. I loved reading her work and many of her stories will stay with me for a long while. I know I will be returning to her collections time and time again. I was grateful for the opportunity to ask her these questions, she is such a sweet individual and her kind spirit resonates in her insightful answers.” In this interview, she discusses compiling her collections, learning to read as a writer, and her definition of flash fiction.
Superstition Review: What is your favorite story in Wouldn’t You Like to Know? Which was your favorite to write?
Pamela Painter: My favorite story is probably “The New Year.” I do love the idea of the traveling team of a cheating, broken-hearted man and his Italian ham. And the last line of the story sort of fell into place. It doesn’t quite make sense but it sounded right when I wrote it. Sound is as important as meaning.
SR: Many of the short stories in Wouldn’t You Like to Know have been published in journals such as Smokelong Quarterly, Narrative, and Del Sol Review. What approach do you take when deciding which stories to collect for a book? Do you write stories specifically for the collection? What is your decision process like when you are submitting this same work to magazines?
PP: I write my stories one by one—never with a future collection in mind, nor where I might submit them for publication. Quite a few of my stories have never made it into a collection and probably never will. As for sending work out, I have a list of magazines that I follow and admire, and where I’d like my work to end up—you mentioned three of them in your question. Sometimes a magazine is looking for stories for a particular issue, perhaps around a particular theme or form, and I am always pleased when I have stories that might fit that journal's vision. I've had work taken recently for three such issues, River Styx's "American Odes," the Marie Alexander Flash Sequence Anthology, and Flashed: Sudden Stories in Prose and Comics.
SR: I noticed that “The New Year” and “Twins” were featured in both The Long and Short of It and Wouldn’t You Like to Know. Why did you revisit these stories and what lead you to include them in your most recent collection?
PP: When I put The Long and Short of It together I didn’t anticipate that I would publish a book of just flash fiction. Then I began writing more and more short shorts, and I decided that my next book would be all flash fiction. It felt disrespectful to those two stories to leave them out.
SR: “Snap Judgment” and “Driver’s Test” are some of my favorite stories in Wouldn’t You Like to Know because the titles take on a new meaning after reading the story. What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your stories do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to titling a collection?
PP: Titles are so hard to come by. “Snap Judgment” was easy because the male character has been judging her and she gets back at him with her little story about a Malthusian proliferation of mice. “Driver’s Test” used to be “Skid Marks” and then someone told me what skid marks refer to in Australia. Never mind.
I want a title to be a key to the story, something that pulls you into the story and also resonates when you reach the story's end. As for collection titles, I can probably think of other titles I might have used but didn't. They seemed right at the time, and have to stand. On occasion, and with a few glasses of wine, my friends and I will make up titles that don't have a story or novel to go with them yet. I'm still waiting to write a story to go with "Crocodile Tears."
SR: In an interview with SmokeLong Quarterly, you give advice to new writers, saying “discipline is a form of self respect” and that it is important to give yourself to the work and commit yourself to a story. How long did it take for you to develop this discipline as a writer?
PP: I’m still working on taking my own advice. I have often wished I could write a novel because the novelist has the same world to return to and inhabit day after day—sometimes for years. What a comfort a fictional home can be. A novelist's characters must feel like old friends of a sort—even the villains. Whereas the story writer might revise a story over and over, and even be working on several at the same time, but soon they are finished, or set aside. And one must begin again.
SR: In that interview you also state that you organize your collections by “looking for dissimilarities that will make the reading of each story a different experience.” How do you maintain the tension between stories while still maintaining a cohesive collection?
PP: By dissimilarities I mean that I might juxtapose different points of view, male and female narrators, present or past tenses, experimental or realistic, dark and light. Reviews of my first collection talked about the range of stories, when they could have complained about a lack of cohesion. My second collection seemed to have shape because I divided it into three sections. It moved from short to longer and then long stories. I think story collections—even though they are conveniently "collected" for the reader—should be read one story at a time, with time in between each story. When reading story collections, I'll read one story and then move on to the novel I am also reading. I am always reading a book that is longer than a story. A novel, biography, etc. And what bliss that there is so much to read.
SR: How have your students or teaching inspired or prompted your writing? To what extent have you considered them collaborators in your creative process?
PP: One component of teaching is articulating how fiction works—for you. I stress that everyone needs to find their own way of writing, and I strive to pass along what I have learned as a writer, from "reading as a writer." Often, I ask students to choose a collection of stories as a "go-to" book, and then when we're talking about summarized dialogue, or setting, or tone, or characterization, or the interior landscape of the characters, students bring in examples from their go-to books. They are reading as writers. I used to xerox reams of examples, and then a friend and I were asked to do a textbook, and four editions later, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers is still going strong. It has some of my favorite examples of the art and craft of fiction, and my favorite quotes, such as Paul Engle who said, "A work of art is first of all work." And Margot Livesey saying, "One must learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery, which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend."
My co-author, Anne Bernays, and I were pleased to use the work of over 150 students in What If? as examples of our exercises. Some students who were undergrads are now writers and professors themselves. And two of the stories reprinted in the collection at the end of What If? are by students whose stories began as a responses to an exercise and went on to be published in The Atlantic and Best New American Voices. And years ago, I had the pleasure of co-teaching with the wonderful writer and teacher, Ron Carlson, who always asks of every story, "Into what life has this trouble come." His concepts of the inside and outside story and the engine that drives the story are at at the heart of my teaching to this day.
Students are collaborators in the sense that, when we're together, I am talking about writing. At least once or twice a semester, an idea for a story will come to me and I stop abruptly and write it down. Sometimes it is only a word, such as "cement." I encourage students to keep a notebook. An idea can disappear all too easily, but even one word can bring it back. The next story that I will write has to do with cement statues acquired while traveling in France.
SR: Who are your literary influences?
PP: Instead of offering a list of names, I'd prefer to say that my influences are every book I've ever read. And reading like a writer. I'm particularly interested in the ways that characters use their imaginations to explore and reveal their interior landscapes. I remember reading a story by Alice Munro in which a character has a long complicated dream about his philandering self and then wakes and sets about separating what is true from what is not. I was immediately able to do the same thing in a story I was working on at the time. The dream becomes a sort of confession, and then once awake the truth comes out. Andre Dubus' character in "A Father's Story" has an imagined conversation with God, in which God forgives him for the death of a young man. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye has a long, stunning passage in which a sister imagines the hijacking and murder of her beloved scientist brother. She ends the passage with the sentence "Here I stop inventing." Atwood's ending of Bodily Harm is a tour de force of a character's imagination.
My favorite story about literary influences is told by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a Paris Review Interview. Friends had given him a copy of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. He says "The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, 'As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…' When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing." An astonishing word for Garcia Marquez to use—allowed.
One should be open to "influences." Hemingway and Fitzgerald used to write letters to each other in which they point out the "tricks" of other writers and how they have appropriated them for their own work.
SR: In “What I See,” the narrator discovers that the wavy lines on a pool’s surface in a David Hockney painting weren’t just imagined, he only had to look to notice them in real life. Over at Necessary Fiction, you describe your experience discovering this detail and the inspiration behind the story. Do you have any other similar experiences where painted art or other mixed media allowed you to see the world in a new way?
PP: Edward Hopper’s paintings seem to shimmer with stories. I wrote about his painting “The Office at Night” because a curator’s description seemed so off the mark. The curator's label said, "The secretary's exaggerated sexualized person contrasts with the buttoned-up indifference of her boss: the frisson of their intimate overtime is undermined by a sense that the scene's erotic expectations are not likely to be met." The painting wasn’t titled “at Night” for nothing. And her neckline is going to dip open when she picks up the piece of paper that her boss, at his desk, has nudged to the floor. So I imagined a different destiny, a different outcome for their evening than the curator had predicted.
I recently wrote a story titled "Look, See" that is coming out in Green Mountains Review. The narrator is an art teacher who has a respect for stuff. Wonderful word—stuff. I think that every artist has stuff that acts as totems. I began to think about "stuff" several years ago after seeing a Gauguin exhibition at the MFA in Boston. In addition to his rich and vivid paintings the museum had collected items he took with him to the islands—carvings, a fragment from an Egyptian vase, tiny paintings. It made me aware of what we collect, the world we build around us. In my story, art students are made aware of the stuff they collect, and often carry with them. Then they are told to draw their stuff.
SR: You are obviously very comfortable in the world of flash fiction, and you’ve mentioned that you will never write a novel. I’m curious, what is the longest story you’ve written? How long does a piece need to be before it is out of your comfort zone?
PP: As I said earlier, I wish I could write a novel, but I suspect I never will. About two years ago, I had an idea for a novel and I did a lot of research for it on French landscape wallpapers, Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto," Alsace. I knew the unstable situation of the story, and I was really excited about setting forth on the journey of a long work. Then I began to write. I wrote about six pages and stopped cold. After a time, I decided it probably should be a novella instead of a novel. I haven't written it yet, so I might be waiting for permission—or the discipline—to write it as a long short story. I am still intrigued by the premise and hope to put all that research to good use someday.
My longest story, "The Second Night of a One Night Stand," which is the last story in The Long and Short of It, is about 30 pages.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
PP: Eudora Welty in her superb book, Eye of the Storm says, "Learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading." That's the answer: a superior devotion to reading. I was always a reader—as a child I was known as "There's-that-Pam-with-her-nose-in-a-book." By college, I knew I wanted to write stories though I hadn't done so yet. But I did talk my way into a fiction workshop with John Barth at Penn State. In the first class he said, "Bring me all your work. Recall any stories you've submitted to journals and I will read them and see where you are." At that point, I hadn't written one story, never mind submitted any to a journal, so I dropped out of the class. But what generosity on Barth's part. Lost in the Fun House is a great book, and I so regret that I wasn't ready for his workshop. Then two years later, when I was teaching high school, I was asked to teach a fiction workshop. At the first meeting, I told the students to write a story and bring it in the next day. They bitched and moaned—knowing more than I about how difficult writing is—so I said, "Enough. I'll do a story with you." And that night I wrote my first short story. I went on to write another story that spring, in my own creative writing class, and my second story became my first published story.
SR: What compels you to write flash fiction? How does writing flash fiction influence or inform your process of writing longer prose?
PP: When I begin a story, almost from the first sentences I know whether it is going to be a 250 word story, a five page story or twenty pages—not because I know where the story is going or how it will end, but because the story's elements seem to demand a short or longer spooling out of their potential. Given this, I am baffled by my experience of trying to write the novel, whose research I described above.
SR: You recently were on a panel at AWP (Association of Writing & Writing Programs) with other flash fiction teachers (Sophie Rosenblum, Sherrie Flick, Sean Lovelace, and Sarah Einstein). Where did the idea for the panel come from? What conversations deriving from the panel expanded your own thinking about flash fiction?
PP: I was delighted to be on that panel, which was put together by Sophie Rosenblum, who was a great moderator. I remember Sean Lovelace's discussion of "appropriation." He said he began writing letters of complaint to various companies that had done him wrong, and he enjoyed this activity so much that he began writing fiction. He talked about the story that uses appropriation as its form. A memo, a letter of complaint, a list, etc. Sarah talked about reading as a writer, which underscores how I want my students to read. And Sherrie Flick read Dan Kaplan's story "Bill" from Flash Fiction Forward and talked about cadence. It made me want to write such a story.
SR: LJ Moore of Examiner.com defines flash fiction as “stories that clock in (usually) under 500 words, but contain all of the elements—plot, intrigue, conflict, and resolution—of a full-length story.” Do you feel this is an accurate depiction of flash? What is your personal definition of flash fiction?
PP: Hmmmm . . . I'm not sure that I would ask flash fiction to have all of those elements. For one thing, I don't like the word conflict because so often the important "conflict" is an internal one. When Anne and I wrote the first draft of What If? we left plot out. Rust Hills' in Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular talks about "tension," and "anticipation" and when I'm discussing his book and/or the subject of plot I add "apprehension." I like Moore's word "intrigue"—but sometimes a flash story has no resolution as such.
SR: There is a musical quality to your writing that makes several of your stories almost read like prose poems. In what ways do you believe flash fiction differs from prose poetry?
PP: For me, the flash story has a tiny narrative arc that the prose poem can ignore in deference to an image or the musicality of its language.
SR: What trends do you notice now in contemporary flash fiction? Do you have any projections for its role in the future?
PP: I think more and more flash stories are achieving a density that the earlier stories didn't have. Particularly a density of language, such as one finds in the stories of Meg Pokrass, Etger Karet. I was asked to judge Rose Metal Press's Short Short Chapbook contest next fall and I am looking forward to seeing what flash writers are up to. I want to find a collection as fresh as Tiff Holland's Betty Superman, that was chosen for Rose Metal Press by the great flash writer Kim Chinquee.
SR: What are you reading?
PP: I just started The Year We Left Home, a novel by Jean Thompson, who edited the most recent issue of Ploughshares and gave a great reading at Emerson. Such sly wit. Novels are always the through line of my reading, though I also read short stories in the same time frame. Sometimes it depends on what comes in the mail that day, say the new issue of Missouri Review or Kenyon Review, or Smoke Long Quarterly or stories that are are posted or recommended on Facebook. If I'm heading out of the house, I might tuck a story from One Story into my purse or backpack.
SR: You have received grants from the NEA and The Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Could you discuss how such recognition has affected you as a writer, or, your career as a writer?
PP: I was enormously grateful for my NEA, which came at a most auspicious time. I ghost wrote books for years as a way of putting three children through college, and I was about to embark on another ghost-writing project when I received an NEA. My family took me out to dinner that night to celebrate and my fortune cookie read "An award in the arts will lead to a change in your career." It was astonishing. When I sent my report to the NEA a year later, I included a xerox of my fortune cookie. That award allowed me to stop ghostwriting and to teach and only write fiction instead.
SR: Describe your writing space.
PP: About five years ago, I made a small "L"-shaped space for myself in my living room. It is a sunny room, formal, with a marble fireplace, beautiful moldings and art that I admire. That is where I am writing now. My actual study is downstairs and filled with file drawers full of teaching materials, contracts, tax info, correspondence, all the paper that one accumulates in one's life. When I go upstairs to my living room I am going there to write stories.
SR: What are you currently working on?
PP: What a great final question. The long and short answer: more stories.